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To illustrate these assertions, it may be proper to take a slight review of the decline of ancient learning; to consider how far its deprivation was owing to the impossibility of supporting continued perfection; in what respects it proceeded from voluntary corruption; and how far it was hastened on by accident. If modern learning be compared with ancient in these different lights, a parallel between both, which has hitherto produced only vain dispute, may contribute to amusement, perhaps to instruction. We shall thus be enabled to perceive what period of antiquity the present age most resembles; whether we are making advances towards excellence, or retiring again to primeval obscurity; we shall thus be taught to acquiesce in those defects which it is impossible to prevent; and reject all faulty innovations, though offered under the specious titles of improvement.
Learning, when planted in any country, is transient and fading, nor does it flourish till slow gradations of improvement have naturalized it to the soil. It makes feeble advances, begins among the vulgar, and rises into reputation among the great. It cannot be established in a state at once, by introducing the learned of other countries; these may grace a court, but seldom enlighten a kingdom. Ptolemy Philadelphus, Constantine Porphyrogeneta, Alfred, or Charlemagne, might have invited learned foreigners into their dominions, but could not establish learning. While in the radiance of royal favor, every art and science seemed to flourish; but when that was withdrawn, they quickly felt the rigors of a strange climate, and with exotic constitutions per ished by neglect.
As the arts and sciences are slow in coming to maturity, it is requisite, in order to their perfection, that the state should be permanent, which gives them reception. There are numberless attempts without success, and experiments without conclusion, between the first rudiments of an art and its utmost perfection; between the
outlines of a shadow and the picture of an Apelles. Leisure is required to go through the tedious interval, to join the experience of predecessors to our own, or enlarge our views, by building on the ruined attempts of former adventurers. All this may be performed in a society of long continuance; but if the kingdom be but of short duration, as was the case of Arabia, learning seems coeval, sympathizes with its political struggles, and is annihilated in its dissolution.
But permanance in a state is not alone sufficient; it is requisite also for this end that it should be free. Naturalists assure us, that all animals are sagacious in proportion as they are removed from the tyranny of others. In native liberty, the elephant is a citizen, and the beaver an architect; but, whenever the tyrant man intrudes upon their community, their spirit is broken, they seem anxious only for safety, and their intellects suffer an equal diminution with their prosperity. The parallel will hold with regard to mankind; fear naturally represses invention ; benevolence, ambition; for in a nation of slaves, as in the despotic governments of the East, to labor after fame is to be a candidate for danger.
To attain literary excellence also, it is requisite that the soil and climate should, as much as possible, conduce to happiness. The earth must supply man with the necessaries of life, before he has leisure or inclination to pursue more refined enjoyments. The climate also must be equally indulgent; for in too warm a region, the mind is relaxed into languor, and by the opposite excess is chilled into torpid inactivity.
These are the principal advantages which tend to the im provement of learning, and all these were united in the states of Greece and Rome.
We must now examine what hastens, or prevents its decline.
themselves with the view without inquiring into their causes, aro perhaps wiser than is generally imagined. In this manner our rude ancestors were acquainted with facts; and poetry, which helped the imagination and the memory, was thought the most proper vehicle for conveying their knowledge to posterity. It was the poet who harmonized the ungrateful accents of his native dialect; who lifted it above commor conversation, and shaped its rude combinations into order. From him the orator formed a style; and though poetry first rose out of prose, in turn it gave birth to every prosaic excellence. Musical period, concise expression, and delicacy of sentiment, were all excellencies derived from the poet; in short, he not only preceded, but formed the orator, philosopher, and historian.
When the observations of past ages were collected, philosophy next began to examine their causes. She had numberless facts from which to draw proper inferences, and poetry had taught her the strongest expression to enforce them. Thus the Greek philosophers, for instance, exerted all their happy talents in the investigation of truth, and the production of beauty. They saw that there was more excellence in captivating the judgment, than in raising a momentary astonishment: in their arts, they imitated only such parts of nature as might please in the representation ; in the sciences, they cultivated such parts of Anowledge, as it was every man's duty to know. Thus learning was encouraged, protected, honored, and in its turn it adorned, strengthened, and harmonized the community.
But as the mind is vigorous and active, and experiment is dilatory and painful, the spirit of philosophy being excited, the reasoner, when destitute of experiment, had recourse to theory, and gave up what was useful for refinement.
Critics, sophists, grammarians, rhetoricians, and commentators, now began to figure in the literary commonwealth. In the
dawn of science, such are generally modest, and not entirely use less; their performances serve to mark the progress of learning, though they seldom contribute to its improvement. But as nothing but speculation was required in making proficients in their respective departments, so neither the satire nor the contempt of the wise, though Socrates was of the number, nor the laws levelled at them by the state, though Cato was in the legis lature, could prevent their approaches.* Possessed of all the advantages of unfeeling dulness, laborious, insensible, and persevering, they still proceeded mending, and mending every work of genius, or to speak without irony, undermining all that was polite and useful. Libraries were loaded, but not enriched with their labors, while the fatigue of reading their explanatory comments was tenfold that which might suffice for understanding the original, and their works effectually increased our application, by professing to remove it.
Against so obstinate and irrefragable an enemy, what could avail the unsupported sallies of genius, or the opposition of transitory resentment ? In short, they conquered by persevering, claimed the right of dictating upon every work of taste, sentiment, or genius, and at last, when destitute of other employment, like the supernumerary domestics of the great, made work for each other.
They now took upon them to teach poetry to those who wanted genius; and the power of disputing to those who knew nothing of the subject in debate. It was observed, how some of the most admired poets had copied nature. From these they collected dry rules, dignified with long names, and such were obtruded upon the public for their improvement. Common sense would be apt to suggest, that the art might be studied to more advantage, rather by imitation than precept. It might suggest, that those rules were collected, not from nature, but a copy of nature, and would consequently give us still fainter resemblances of original beauty. It might still suggest, that explained wit makes but a feeble impression; that the observations of others are soon forgotten, those made by ourselves are permanent and useful. But, it seems, understandings of every size were to be mechanically instructed in poetry. If the reader was too dull to relish the beauties of Virgil, the comment of Servius was ready to brighten his imagination; if Terence could not raise him to a smile, Evantius was at hand, with a long-winded sckolium to increase his titillation. Such rules are calculated to make blockheads talk; but all the lemmata of the Lyceum are unable to give him feeling*
* Vide Sueton. Hist. Gram.
But it would be endless to recount all the absurdities which were hatched in the schools of those specious idlers, be it sufficient to say, that they increased as learning improved, but swarmed on its decline. It was then that every work of taste was buried in long comments; every useful subject in morals was distinguished away into casuistry, and doubt and subtlety characterized the learning of the age. Metrodorus, Valerius Probus, Aulus Gellius, Pedianus, Boethius, and a hundred others, to be acquainted with whom might show much reading and but little judgment; these, I say, made choice each of an author, and delivered all their load of learning on his back. Shame to our ancestors ! many of their works have reached our times entire, while Tacitus himself has suffered mutilation.
* [" Their logical disputations seemed even to be the apotheosis of folly. In these the opponent had a right to affirm whatever absurdity he thought proper. The defendant, though he saw the falsehood almost by intuition, was not allowed to use his reason, but his art, in the debate. It was his business only to measure the assertion by one of his artificial instruments, and as it happened to accord or disagree, he found himself qualified to support, or obliged .0 discontinue, his defence ; which seldom, however, happened, till fatigue or anger terminated the inquiry." --First edit.)